Pleasanton: Opening Day Pick Four Analysis (6/19/20)

Friday is Opening Day at Pleasanton, and I’m excited for the 2020 meet to get underway. Pleasanton is one of my favorite places in racing. When the Alameda County Fair is rocking and rolling, this track is as good a place as any to go for a reminder of the charming aspects of the sport we all love and care about. Add in that I’ve become friends with many of the people at CARF over the past few years, and seeing them up and running becomes that much sweeter.

The fair is obviously not happening, and seeing Pleasanton without fans is going to be weird. However, I’m pretty pumped for one of my favorite tracks to be up and running, and I’ll be posting whatever content I can as the meet rolls on through June and July.

We’ll kick things off with a look at the late Pick Four on Opening Day. It’s a seven-race program, so the sequence starts in the fourth. The folks in the racing office did a really nice job putting together the card on short notice, and I think there are opportunities to make some money. Let’s take a look!

RACE #4: The first leg is a maiden claimer for older fillies and mares, and I think the morning line man got this one right. #5 SWEETENER figures to be a heavy favorite in her second start off the layoff. She showed speed against pricier company off the bench at Golden Gate, and anything close to her early-2019 dirt races would likely crush this group.

However, there’s a lot of early speed that could go with her early, so I can’t single her. With the possibility of the race collapsing, I need to have #1 BRITE TAN on my ticket as well. She’s been running at Los Al, which isn’t a surface that favors closers, and she’s got some back form there. Kyle Frey signing on is encouraging, and her best race could be good enough to win this at a price.

RACE #5: This race houses the horse that may be the shortest price of the sequence. He’s not infallible, but I can’t get too cute, as I do think he’s the most likely winner and I’m confident enough to single him.

That’s #5 DOUBLE TIGER, who drops in class off a layoff for trainer Jamey Thomas. Unlike many of these runners, though, he has form on dirt, having never finished worse than second in three starts on the surface. Thomas has had a lot of success this year, and this one has run Beyer Speed Figures that tower over those of much of this group.

Double Tiger is 9/5 on the morning line, and I think he’ll go off shorter than that. If he doesn’t win, I lose, and I imagine many other tickets go up in smoke as well.

RACE #6: Part of the reason I singled Double Tiger is that he looks like the class of the field. The other part is that I don’t have a clue in the sixth, a race without much experience signed on, and one where I can’t have any confidence in the shorter prices.

#6 CAROLINA MIA has run well at Golden Gate, but there’s nothing saying she wants dirt. The same can be said for #1 GET’EM TIGER and #2 SWEET REGARDS, and those three, in some order, will likely be the first three betting choices in this seven-horse field.

I’m hitting the “ALL” button. I wish I could narrow this field down, but between the overall inexperience and the lack of dirt form, I have no thoughts on this race other than that I want maximum coverage. With that said, I’ll buy the race and hope we get a price home.

RACE #7: We finish things off with a claiming event for older fillies and mares. I thought this was another competitive race, and I’m taking a bit of a shot by going against #7 DANIEL THE DREAMER, the morning line favorite. She’s taking a big drop in class, but she’s 0-for-4 on dirt, and those races came at Grants Pass Downs against suspect fields.

My top pick is #4 GIFTY, who hasn’t done a lot wrong to this point. She broke her maiden at second asking, and then found starter allowance company too tough when seventh in her first try against winners. However, she was beaten less than four lengths, and that day’s winner came right back to win again. I wish there was more dirt form on the page, but anything close to the last two efforts would make her pretty tough.

I’ll also use #5 STREUSEL and #6 ZELAIA. The former is a closer in a race full of early speed and should come rolling late, and the latter won on dirt at Turf Paradise earlier this year and is another dropping in class. One other note: If you want to spend a bit more money than me, #2 MAUI MAGIC may be live at a price. I love when runners are protected from the claim off of long layoffs, and she ran reasonably well twice on dirt last summer. She may want longer than this distance and this came up pretty salty for the level, but she may have more of a chance than the odds board will indicate.

R4: 1,5
R5: 5
R6: ALL
R7: 4,5,6

42 Bets, $21

Andrew Plays Golf: Prepping for Pebble Beach

My dad’s coming to the Bay Area in a few short weeks. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many of our usual father-son activities are off the table. For instance, in-restaurant dining is out of the question (even if it was allowed, we almost certainly wouldn’t do it, for understandable reasons), and while horse races will be run at the Alameda County Fair in nearby Pleasanton, fans will not be allowed on the grounds.

One thing we can do, however, is play golf. My dad is a lifelong player, a multiple-time club champion at various courses in upstate New York, and a single-digit handicap who often finds ways to grumble about scores in the high-70’s. I know this because he usually calls me on his way home after posting said scores.

In my case, though, “play golf” is a relative term. Perhaps the more appropriate description of my activity would be “attempt to not awaken the ghost of Old Tom Morris by partaking in the biggest earth-moving project in the history of Contra Costa County.” My all-time best round was a 96 at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, the former site of the LA Open before it moved to Riviera. I finished par-par-par, including a 5 on a finishing hole that once induced a 12 from Arnold Palmer, and I felt like turning my driver into a bull, a la Adam Sandler in “Happy Gilmore.”

I’ve never been a consistently active golfer, even after moving to California, where the golf season doubles in length from where I grew up. I enjoy the game, but between working on weekends for most of my career and having a lot of other stuff going on, I’ve never had the time to devote to being good at it. Add in that they don’t really make golf clubs for people who stand 6’5” and that most golfing activities involve bending something that usually doesn’t bend much for people my height, and you wind up with an awkward marriage of hobbyist and hobby.

This may seem verbose, but you need to have a clear picture of all of it, as everything you’ve just read leads to a two-part declaration.

Part one: My father and I will be playing Pebble Beach.

Part two: I am mortified.

This is the most renowned public golf course in the country. It’s hosted six U.S. Opens. Nicklaus hit one of the best shots of his career with a 1-iron here. Watson holed the ultimate “you could put a bucket of balls out there and never do that again” chip here. Tiger could’ve won the 2000 U.S. Open here playing on his knees.

And they’re letting ME play there?

I sweat over the pick box in Saratoga’s Pink Sheet every day of every meet. I hurl my phone into the couch when horses I bet lose photo finishes (my phone and couch can attest this happens often). I rage-quit video games, and I full-heartedly fling myself into things where nothing more than bragging rights are on the line (if you’re in Group Four in the contest being put on by the fine folks at The Daily Gallop, you know this already). Put that together with a tee shot that naturally veers further to the right than Mitch McConnell, and you have a recipe for disaster.

EafS2CIU8AAjpw1I need help, and lots of it, so I’m trying to work my way into something resembling decent form ahead of my father’s visit. Step one came Sunday with a trip to Diablo Hills, a nine-hole, par-34 course a few miles from my apartment. I got thrown into a foursome with three nice, outgoing people who were kind enough to laugh at my usual pre-round proclamation, “I suck, but I suck quickly.”

Early returns were not promising. After teeing up the first of three Titleist golf balls marked, “I’M NOT LOST, I’M HIDING FROM ANDREW CHAMPAGNE,” I took a deep breath through my mask, pulled, my driver back, and gave it a big move through the ball. True to form, the drive looked great for about 75 yards before making a hard right turn and ignoring my pained cries of, “hold, ball!” When the ball stopped 200 yards from the tee, it did so thanks to a conveniently-placed fence that trapped it in its wiring.

EagTZUBUwAACFutAfter thanking the fence profusely for its service and giving myself a drop that was questionable in legality (basically, I treated the fence as though it was a hazard and used the foolproof, “I’m not walking all the way back there to hit another tee shot,” defense), I pulled out a wedge, and all of a sudden, things got weird, as my body was momentarily possessed by a golfing spirit that knew what it was doing. My uphill shot dodged a nearby tree, floated through the air, and came to rest on the front part of the green about 40 feet from the cup. I salvaged a two-putt bogey, and with that, we were off and running.

Diablo Hills is built around several apartment complexes, several of which must feel like war zones in the summer with golf balls bombarding roofs, walls, windows, and parked cars from dawn to dusk. The fourth hole is a 90-yard par 3 down a hill near a major road in town. My playing partners confirmed moving cars had been hit by errant tee shots in the past, so I had plenty of apprehension as I stood over my ball (especially since said ball had my full name on it and could be used against me in traffic court).

I gave it my best three-quarter wedge swing, and it looked good off the clubhead.

“Be right,” I pleaded as it approached the green and a bunker guarding it.

It was, but barely. It missed the side of the bunker by about three feet, bounced once, and skidded to a stop about 10 feet past the hole.

Fear not, though, as I remembered my lack of skill on the green and squirted the birdie putt a foot or two past the cup on the right side. Crap.

Still, I wound up playing like I actually had some sort of clue, which shocked me. Despite a three-putt double-bogey on the course’s lone par-5 (a devilish, 500-yard uphill hole that points and laughs at walkers too brave/cheap to rent a cart), I signed for a respectable 44, and it could’ve been two or three shots lower with better putting and/or drives kept on the planet.

IMG_8239I felt strangely optimistic as I took my golfer’s mask off in the car. Diablo Hills is no Pebble Beach, but if I can straighten out the big stick and start making some putts, perhaps I won’t totally embarrass myself on a big stage.

Then again, if I do, it’ll make for a pretty funny column.

Podcasts, Videos, and the Return of the “Wacky-Capsule”

Over the weekend, in a desperate search to keep my mind occupied following the death of my grandmother, I found myself going down a social media rabbit hole. When I got on Twitter and saw my timeline, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of audio/visual content produced by the people I follow.

There were podcasts, live streams, and quick video hits galore, all hitting a bunch of different tones for different subsets of the racing fanbase. In one way, I was pretty happy, because it meant I was following the right people. In another, I couldn’t help but remember some of the reactions I got when part of my job was doing this exact sort of thing.

From mid-2012 through late-2018, I was a driving force behind the social and digital media strategy at several racing networks and publications, including The Pink Sheet in Saratoga, HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form. At each stop, social media reach and engagement grew considerably (sometimes far more than that), due in large part to strategies that brought content horseplayers wanted to access to them in more convenient ways. I say this to establish that I know what I’m talking about thanks to years of experience appealing to people like myself.

When I did that stuff, though, there were times where the reactions were far from positive. When I did live chats in Saratoga and filmed daily editions of The Pink Sheet Insider, some print-oriented folks at The Saratogian made no secret that they thought I wasn’t using my time wisely. When I started filming video hits for social media as part of my job at TVG, at least one person took to calling my makeshift studio the “wacky-capsule,” as a take-off of the old “handi-capsule” that became the TVG2 studio.

Just a few years later, everyone’s doing the same exact thing, from “wacky-capsules” of their very own. Life comes at you fast, huh?

I’m not looking for a pat on the back or some admission that I saw things coming (though if you’d like to give me one, or in some cases admit you were wrong many years ago, I won’t object). I’m bringing this up because, during the COVID-19 crisis, parts of racing’s establishment have finally accepted that there are other ways to reach their most important audience. Not everything has to be put on a television, or micromanaged by someone sitting behind a big desk. Give your handicappers a phone or a video camera, make sure they have a place to sit with a cool background, and let them go nuts by showing their knowledge, handicapping skills, and passion for the sport.

I could tell a lot of stories about stuff I did and how we improvised on the fly. Jeff Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse gave me a shot on HRTV’s streams from Belmont and Santa Anita in the final months before that network was acquired by TVG, and I loved it. Most of all, I enjoyed seeing the analytics that showed we weren’t a competitor to pre-existing offerings, but a complementary piece of content for horseplayers who wanted a little extra. That the prevailing reaction among most of my colleagues who watched was, “I thought you were going to be goofy, but you can actually do this,” was merely a bonus.

When TVG hired me on, I kept that concept going under the “TVG Extra” name for as long as I was allowed to, but also took things a step further with some concepts many of you enjoyed. First, I somehow got the approval for the aforementioned “wacky-capsule,” which featured a one-camera setup, a switcher, a lighting rig, and a computer to edit on. I’d call Paul in the graphics department, he’d shoot over the fields his crew had produced, and after a few minutes of filming, I’d have everything I needed to create stuff like the video below (which was our most-watched YouTube video the week before the 2016 Breeders’ Cup).

I also started a weekly online show called the “Pre-Game Periscope” every Saturday morning. I grabbed my iPhone 6, set it up on a makeshift stand that consisted of phone books arranged thickest to thinnest, laid out my past performances, hit “go live,” and streamed for a half-hour to 45 minutes. The production values were non-existent, but you know what? Nobody cared. That little show got hundreds of live viewers each week, and pushed past 1,000 a few times on big days. No graphics? No music? No b-roll? No television distribution? No problem.

“TVG Extra” died the day of the 2016 Santa Anita Handicap. The Pre-Game Periscope, and the hits I did for TVG’s social media audience, died about a year later (the full stories on all of these will be available in my memoirs, which will come out when I’m in desperate need of Pick Four money). Now, just a few years later, those formats are back, and EVERYONE is doing them. Barstool Sports runs a handicapping stream wherein they’re airing race calls as they happen. I remember when my then-boss (one of the best people I’ve ever worked for) had to talk a major organization into not shutting down a “TVG Extra” stream because they hated we were using their video feed.

Times change, and as an industry, horse racing needs to change with them. It’s no secret that this isn’t something the sport has traditionally done well. I’m encouraged that so many organizations are finally letting their talented people loose with this stuff, but that’s only half the battle. What happens if and when COVID-19 subsides and people start going back to offices, race tracks, and TV studios?

Production of this content shouldn’t stop simply because some things are closer to being back to normal. I’ve seen a lot of content out there that’s creative, imaginative, and never would have gotten approved before the word “coronavirus” entered our collective vocabulary. We’ve changed our minds on a lot over the past few months. Let’s look at the landscape and allow ourselves to realize we need to evolve, okay?

As a content producer, a digital media expert, and someone who desperately wants to see horse racing and its current and aspiring on-air talents grow, I’m using this space to send a simple message to anyone who’s producing content or wants to produce content: Don’t stop. Take whatever’s inspiring you and run with it. If someone’s complaining, chances are they’ll be copying you in a few years. Use it as fuel, and as affirmation what you’re doing is almost certainly working more than the busybody-in-question wants to admit.

If you need some guidance, or advice, or someone to vent to, fill out the “contact” form. What you send goes to my email, and I see everything that comes in. You can also tweet me at @AndrewChampagne, where you can find all of the content I produce on a regular basis.

COVID-19, My Grandmother, and Coping with Grief

OK, folks, this one sucks.

I come from a long line of strong, proud women. They were always there for me, no matter what, and they always taught me to be there for others.

One of those women was Carolyn Hake, my grandmother. And it’s going to take me a while to get over that, at this time, I can’t embody the things she helped teach me.

Nana passed away from COVID-19 earlier this week. Her nursing home was exposed to the virus, and it hit her like a tank. She was asymptomatic for more than a week. Then she wasn’t.

She served her upstate New York community as a nurse for many years. Everyone at Wiltwyck Country Club knew her and her husband, Victor Hake (a scratch golfer at his peak who my father insists was one of the best he ever saw with a wedge in his hands), and from what I gathered, most loved them both.

She was social, but very strong, and like most people in my family, you REALLY didn’t want to piss her off. Grandpa liked telling the story of the time he and Nana went to Pebble Beach and got paired with two guys who wanted no part of playing with a woman. Nana proceeded to kick both their tails for 18 holes, and she even parred the seventh, the flagship par-3 down the hill by the Pacific Ocean. My father also tells plenty of stories involving my grandfather looping his wife into golf plans by saying he “needed to clear it with the war department.”

Grandpa passed away in late-2012. True to form, Nana persevered. Then Alzheimer’s hit in 2015. Those of you who have seen what Alzheimer’s does first-hand don’t need me to tell you how devastating it is. She’d been in that nursing home for about a year, having good days and bad days, and I can’t help but think that she deserved better than to be gripped by a fatal virus she may not have understood.

I was always told to be there for my family in times of need, no matter what. Nana helped teach me that. The stinging truth, of course, is that COVID-19 has made that impossible. I’m 3,000 miles from my family, holed up in a Bay Area apartment with the cat Nana helped care for for a few days while I moved to California in 2013.

My loved ones, meanwhile, are all back in New York. Everyone’s grieving in their own ways. There aren’t any hugs. There are no supportive arms around shoulders. There won’t be a memorial service, either, at least not until it’s safe to have one. The question, “what can I do?,” is, more often than not, met with one of the most depressing one-word responses in the English language: “Nothing.”

“No matter what” doesn’t really apply in a pandemic, as we’ve all found out in some way, shape or form. Flying isn’t advisable, and the last thing my family needs is for the virus to affect someone else they love. My mind has come to terms with that. My heart hasn’t, and it may not for a long time.

I’m sure Nana wouldn’t want me to get down for too long, or think anything is my fault. She’d probably want me to do what I did when Grandpa passed, which was write something meaningful and honest before helping my loved ones to the best of my ability. That’s why I decided to put text to a Word doc.

(NOTE: In an odd twist, the piece I wrote after Grandpa died helped save my weekly column at The Saratogian. If this saves some part of my emotional well-being in a trying time nobody could have envisioned even four or five months ago, I think Nana would consider that about even.)

Nana wouldn’t want me to get political, so I’m not going to do that, but there is one point I want to make in closing. When it comes to COVID-19, I’m willing to consider a lot of societal viewpoints valid, given the presence of reason, logic, and fact. There’s one philosophy, though, that I refuse to accept, and it’s anything along the lines of the following phrase: “I don’t know anyone who has it, so it’s not a big deal.”

This virus does not discriminate. It hits every age group, every demographic, and every social class. You can rush to point out the numbers and how an absurdly-high percentage of people with the disease will not die. Your loved ones are not immune simply because you think it can’t happen to them. If you genuinely believe that your opinion gives them a shield, smarten up.

Rest in peace, Nana. I already miss you, and I love you very much.

Should They Run at Saratoga? A Unique Answer

I swore to myself I wouldn’t write an article on the likelihood of racing in Saratoga unless I could promise it would be different from anything else that’s out there. In a roundabout way, I got to that point Tuesday, when multiple Saratoga discussions populated my social media timelines and got my brain going.

Right off the bat, I’ll start with a disclaimer: This is not an impassioned article to go full-speed ahead, torpedoes be damned, and run at Saratoga. That may surprise you given my background, but I urge you to move forward with an open mind. On the other hand, this is also not something admonishing NYRA for still considering the possibility of a Saratoga meet.

Instead, this column focused on the most underused phrase on social media, and one I feel is as valuable as any in the English language. It’s a simple, three-word, three-syllable phrase that doesn’t reflect nearly as much weakness as it implies, and one a lot of people should have tattooed on a forearm as a reminder of what to say during tricky situations.

In a convenient plot twist, I’m also alluding to my specific feelings on the Saratoga conundrum. All of this can be summarized with this very sentence: I don’t know.

Let those words resonate for a moment, and let me tell you how hard it was to arrive at that conclusion. You may find people who love Saratoga as much as I do, but the list of people who love it more is very, very short. I’m an Upstate New York native who spent parts of every summer in the backyard picnic area and frequently travels back east from California to spend a few days there with my family and remaining friends within the industry.

I’m also not without a financial interest in this debate. As you’ve heard me shout from the mountaintops every summer, I’m the featured handicapper in The Pink Sheet, which is sold outside the track and distributed around Saratoga. I’ve also profiled Saratoga races for freelance gigs at entities such as The Daily Racing Form, The Saratoga Special, Oddschecker US, and Horse Racing Nation. Simply put, you’re not going to find many people in racing’s media contingent whose reputations are so tied to one particular high-profile track, and if races scheduled for Saratoga are not run at Saratoga, chances are I’m out a significant chunk of change.

On the other hand, there’s no playbook to fight back against what has happened over the past few months. When the coronavirus hit, it sent societies everywhere into panicked frenzies, and justifiably so. Even now, as some states prepare to cautiously roll out plans designed to achieve some version of normality, there’s a lot we don’t know, as evidenced by the healthy social distancing regulations in place even in states eager to “reopen.” Major sports leagues, for instance have already seemed to accept a reality where fans are not in attendance, which would’ve been a blasphemous thought just three months ago.

How does horse racing properly weigh all of this? I don’t know.

I’m friends with people who want tracks to reopen yesterday with protocols in place similar to the ones at Oaklawn, Gulfstream, and other locales currently open for business. They feel this way out of legitimate concern for both the industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. On the contrary, I also know people who wonder how we can justify racing at all, anywhere, for any amount of money, during the current pandemic. These reasons are understandable, too. They don’t want people possibly exposing themselves to a deadly virus when millions of people are following orders to shelter in place.

If we’re solely using those two standpoints, I’m going to lean to the side advocating for the reopening of tracks, provided systems are in place that protect all stakeholders involved. I can’t support denying people the right to make an honest living, especially when unemployment numbers are rising every day. If the protocol that has been rolled out by several tracks has been proven effective, let’s use it and, at a minimum, get an industry that employs a lot of people on the road to recovery.

Having said that, there are other factors in play when Saratoga is involved. Boutique meets at tracks like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland rely heavily on community support and on horses and their handlers shipping in from out of town. Even if New York wasn’t one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to see a pre-pandemic scene at Saratoga materializing anytime soon. Add in the dizzying numbers that have been coming out of the Empire State, specifically New York City, and things get even murkier.

What should they do? I don’t know.

None of the alternatives are attractive. No sane person wants a situation where New York’s horse racing circuit is done through the summer. The idea of running Saratoga’s races at Belmont during its designated time of year has been floated, but with all due respect to Belmont, that would feel like a cheapening of the product. One could also foresee a scenario where Saratoga runs its dates later in the year in hopes of attracting crowds after the public threat of the coronavirus subsides, but it gets cold early (anything after mid-October would be risky), weekday crowds would be non-existent since kids would be back at school, and for all we know, the virus may still be around at that point.

There’s no outcome that’s going to please everyone, and the stakes are high. If racing returns to Saratoga too early, one of the most beloved tracks in the country could take a substantial hit. If it doesn’t return at all, NYRA’s business gets clipped in the knees, and horsemen and horsewomen struggle to make payroll. Like everyone else in the world, racing executives in New York are at the mercy of a virus that doesn’t have a designated end date, and tough decisions are going to have to be made.

When I was thinking about writing this article, a close friend told me that my stance wouldn’t win any arguments, which seems like the real currency right now. I find it hard to disagree with him, especially in the culture that’s been created by experts in the “shout loudly and mobilize fellow loud people” field. Still, I’ve heard a lot of opinions by a lot of smart folks of late, and I’m left wanting a solution that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

How does New York make what seems like an impossible decision, one that has far-reaching effects on horsemen, horsewomen, the city of Saratoga Springs, and, by extension, the United States racing circuit at large?

I don’t know.

And I don’t know when, how, or why it became a bad thing to say that.